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The Personal Essay: Doughnuts, we make in December

DECEMBER 14, 2017 – From earliest memory, I pondered the mysteries of the universe. Why did the chicken cross the road? And, even more puzzling: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Beyond these (eventually) soup-related brain-teasers, I also could not figure out a couple of very significant doughnut-related questions. Whatever happened to the doughnut holes? And, even more importantly, regarding doughnuts without holes: How did the jelly get inside a jelly doughnut?

It was quite like one of those chicken-and-the-egg type quandaries, only carbo-loaded. I rolled the answers over and over in my mind at night. Ever since winning the coveted Troop 116 Baking Award and badge in my Brownie troop (I won with Toll House cookies, with the basic recipe on the back of the packet – but I think it was the chopped walnuts and butter-crispy edge textures that got me over the finish line into blue ribbon territory), I was designated the uncoveted role of family baker.

As the only girl of my generation in a very gender role specific clan, I guess it was kismet, and not necessarily a destiny of my own choosing.

Indeed, by a tender age, I had my heart set on becoming a jockey (female jockeys were quite a new thing back then, and rather glamorous). My brother couldn’t stand the thought of it, and persuaded me that I was already too tall to ride to victory in the Kentucky Derby. So I decided to become a pro football player instead.

Linebacker was my position of choice. We had a closet full of junior-sized padding and helmets. Every day after school, I would suit up and tackle the neighborhood boys. Actually, I was quite good at it; and I fancied I might even get my distant father’s approval one day, if he saw me winning a football game on TV.

I might not have been very good at catching or passing the football, but oh boy, was I good at tackling! I was a terror on the field (in this case, my backyard.) This particular fascination lasted all season, as the weather cooled off and the football frenzy heated up. In the midst of the post-war baby boom, our neighborhood was brimful of children, all of whom rode their shiny trikes and bikes (and the odd scooter) over to our house to fight for the pigskin.

I was good at it! Nobody cared that I was a girl. At least none of the kids did. But as for my grandmother, this was a different story entirely.

She bribed me with chocolate. Chocolate, cookies, and anything else she could use to get me off the backyard football field and back into the kitchen, where I apparently belonged. My grandmother brought me fancy treats, escalating from Swiss milk chocolate, with a detour at Pepperidge Farms, way up to real German marzipan, shaped and colored like precious little fruits. But the payoff for these treats was crystal clear: I must not play football. Ever. Verboten. I was a girl. I was supposed to cook instead. She handed me an apron.

So, on the cool-weather weekends when my brothers would suit up and head to battle on the backyard field, I was laboring away over a hot oven. Now, my grandmother wasn’t much of a cook herself. She’d had her maid, Dora, with her all of her adult life, and Dora did the cooking. But Great Aunt Rivka used to love to come and visit us in the burbs, especially around the holidays. And Rivkala, now, that lady could cook.

So it was one fine winter afternoon, during a hotly contested neighborhood football game, that I asked Rivka a question which had been vexing me for quite some time. “Whatever happens to the doughnut holes?” I peeped up.

My great-aunt was patient. “There aren’t always doughnut holes,” she told me. “If you cut them by hand, you can fry the inner circles by themselves. But me, I just add those spare bits of dough back to the big batch.” Rivka, always an early-adopter, was into recycling (dough-wise); and profoundly anti-food wastage. “But there’s a nice secret to perfect doughnuts, with the middle holes in them.”

“What is it?” I needed to know, my interest piqued. “How do you do it?”

“We can talk about that later, maybe one day,” she responded. “But, look, it’s December. And doughnuts, we make in December. Special ones. Your favorite!” As if on cue, a light snow flurry started to drift across the backyard football field. My brothers, undeterred, kept on playing. “We aren’t making doughnuts with holes today,” she continued.

I had an idea what was coming. “JELLY DOUGHNUTS?” I squealed. They were a perennial cold-weather favorite. Further on cue, my mother appeared, carrying a box of seasonal decorations. She proceeded to plug in several electric candelabras, one in each window.  Rivka winked, and out of her shopping bag, withdrew a strange canvas sleeve with a pointy metal tip. I’d never seen one before. “It’s a pastry bag,” she explained. Next out of her voluminous bag came several jars of homemade preserves: a smoothly textured, fruity midpoint between jam and jelly. I recognized these jars, as I’d helped Aunt Rivka and Dora to make dozens of them, starting with boxes of fresh fruit, on a sweaty August day the summer before.

Accordingly, we made the doughnuts: Big puffy round ones, without holes. Rivka expertly guided each pastry pillow into the simmering oil with a slotted spoon. I’d always wondered why fried dough would not explode into a shapeless, sticky mess if it was already filled with moisture-laden jam. But finally, I began to understand that there was a hidden, two-step process. As the doughnuts cooled on a wire rack, Rivka filled the pastry bag with smooth raspberry jam, and inserted the tip into the fried dough. Squirt! She pumped each doughnut full of jam. Strawberry, blueberry, and cherry jam all got their moment.

Then it was my job to delicately sprinkle each filled doughnut with powdered sugar, through an old-fashioned sifter, like the snow now drifting down in our backyard. The football players stormed inside, muddy and wet, shivering as they grabbed all the doughnuts from the rack. Undeterred, we made more. There was plenty to go around.

The next night, there was a special gift for me at my place at the table. As my mother kindled the festive candles, Rivka grinned. “Go ahead – open it,” she said. There was a card with it, so as I unwrapped the colorful box depicting a strange, shiny steel tube-within-a-tube, with a plunger handle on the end, I read Rivka’s words in her spidery, old-fashioned cursive handwriting.

“Now you know where the doughnut holes go, when there aren’t any!” she had quite enigmatically written. I turned the box over in my hands, and read the label out loud. “Doughnut Maker with plunger,” it read.

“Perfect doughnuts every time!”

Tspora can make doughnuts in her sleep, but still wonders who wrote the “The Book of Love.” She can be reached at cornmother@outlook.com.

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Hanukkah Doughnuts Recipe

In a medium size bowl, whisk half a teacup of sugar with half a teacup of warm water.

Mix with two cakes or dried packets of yeast; leave to go frothy for 20 minutes.

Carefully sift 6 big handfuls (or teacups) of white flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add a pinch of salt.

In a third bowl, whip 4 egg yolks and 2 teacups of warm milk.

Mix with half a stick of unsalted, soft butter.

Now mix the yeast mixture and the dairy mixture in with the flour.

Knead this all together for at least 10 minutes, until it forms a stretchy ball. Add more flour by the handful, if you need to. Now oil a large bowl. Place the dough ball in the bowl, and turn it to coat it all in the oil. Cover it with a clean dish towel, and leave it somewhere warm and cozy to rise, for about 90 minutes.

Once it has fully risen, knead the dough lightly again, then roll it out thickly onto a floured surface with a rolling pin. Use a large drinking glass to cut out perfectly round doughnut shapes. Let these rounds rise again, for another half hour or so.

In the biggest, deepest cast-iron pot you have (or better yet, a deep fryer), heat the sunflower oil and test it with a small piece of dough, which should sizzle quietly, puff up, and turn golden brown. Once that happens, use a slotted spoon to drop each doughnut gently into the oil. Don’t overcrowd the doughnuts, and flip them over when one side is golden brown. Let them sit on paper towels or a wire rack to cool down.

To make homemade “refrigerator jam” for doughnuts: Boil any type of berries or fruit (apples, peaches, pitted cherries, cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries) with equal parts of fruit and sugar, a little water, plus a couple of spoonfuls of lemon juice or vanilla. (You can buy this fruit in season during the summer, and freeze it for later use.) Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it cooks down. Add pectin as you stir. Once cool, run through a blender or a food processor until smooth. Pour into jars, then refrigerate (this is much simpler than traditional canning).

You also can fill the doughnuts with vanilla custard.

Fill a pastry bag full of homemade jam, cut a slit in each doughnut, and use this to fill the doughnuts. Pour powdered sugar into a strainer or sifter, and sift it all over the doughnuts once they’ve cooled down a bit. Served still slightly warm, these doughnuts will disappear.

– Tspora Roth

 

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